We are built from stories, layered one upon the other. In her debut novel, Monterey Bay, Lindsay Hatton employs the specificity of history and historical fiction to craft an emotional truth that leaves history behind. Her protagonist, Margot Fiske, is mesmerizing and compelling, but is also neither ethical nor nice. It has served Margot well.
In 1998, Margot Fiske is running the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She’s an iron-fist, no-glove kind of boss, beloved but never underestimated. In 1940, she’s a 15 year-old girl who looks older and knows how to use it. She’s willing to use it to win the heart of the biologist, whom she at first dislikes. Turns out, he’s Ed Ricketts. His best (and very complicated) friend, John Steinbeck, is writing about him. Steinbeck doesn’t much like Margot, and we might not either, but she will not be left behind.
Monterey Bay runs on a powerful prose engine, steeped in poetry and vivid details. Hatton takes a lot of chances in her debut. She messes not only with history as we know it, but some of the most powerful fictionalized versions of history as well. She puts words in the mouths of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, and it all manages to feel natural, organic and credibly tense as we race to embrace a past that never was so we can better understand a future that will never be.
While Hatton’s prose is always a pleasure to read, she follows through by crafting a great set of characters, even though we’ve met some in Cannery Row, an authentic American literary classic. Margot Fiske is pushy, self-centered, incredibly talented and driven, even as a teenager. Ricketts is both a bemused genius, lost in the world of his creation, as well as something of a casual cad. Steinbeck is insecure and yet in charge, a famous man who is uncertain of his own worth, even if it is clear [to Steinbeck and everyone else] that he, like Ricketts, is some kind of genius. Margot’s father is a capitalist terror. It’s obvious that the daughter took after her father. Mothers are absent, and we notice this.
Hatton’s willingness to bend history to suit her needs is admirable, and utterly transparent. The story of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and its founder, Julie Packard, are well known to us and sidestepped here. Hatton does a great job creating Monterey as a sort of haunted beach town, and readers who enjoy a hothouse gothic feel to their literature will find much to like here. Even in the opening, there’s a distinctly Lovecraftian image of a tentacled menace just out of sight. That gothic shadow hovers over the novel.
In re-writing both history and fiction, Lindsay Hatton succeeds on all levels. She brings you in with seductive prose, keeps you hanging with a steamy mystery, and brings it all together even as she take history itself apart. Crowded houses preside over a Bay that is being killed by those who live there. A lonely genius meets a troubled girl. By the time the future arrives, there will have been so many more deaths. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is not dead – it is housing life. Its pages are these pages. Can you breathe underwater?
I spoke with Lindsay Hatton at KAZU about her novel; how her work at the Aquarium informed it and the challenge of taking on literary icons. If you’ve read this far, please take the time to visit my report for KAZU about Lindsay Hatton. Leave a comment; this will help keep the reviews and interviews coming!
Here’s a link to an unfiltered “lightning round” to give you a précis as to Things Worth Knowing About This book. Or you can listen just below.
Here’s a link to our in-depth interview, which is also a précis as to Things Worth Knowing About This book. Or you can listen just below.